ZANSKAR VIA THE SARICHEN LA
WILLIAM McKAY AITKEN
THE FIRST WEEK OF July 1988 found me picking John Banon's brains in Manali on how to reach Zanskar cheaply. 'Don't underestimate the difficulties' proved' very sound advice and the first difficulty was finding a foothold on the bus over the Rohthang to Keylang. Eventually one settled for the roof which meant lying flat whenever you passed anyone in uniform. The descent to Lahul was quite Biblical with cries of 'Absalom' every time the bus brushed under an avenue of willows. Keylang was utterly delightful and the people likewise. Since the crossing of the Great Himalaya takes four days I thought it was about time to invest in some supplies. The hardest climbs in the Himalaya in my opinion are backpacking up the back of buses to check that the rest of one's luggage hasn't bounced off. The answer is not to carry any and for this reason I dispensed with the tent and pressure cooker. However since I would be away for a month I couldn't dispense with my means of livelihood and had to lug the typewriter along.
Darcha the roadhead for Zanskar treks turned out to be a measly canvas settlement flapping in the breeze, and to the stainless steel tureen I had bought in Keylang (mug-cuni-porridge-bowl-cum-mirror) were added some ingredients to go in it, like Maggi noodles at four times the price they would have been in Manali. (To avoid those star treks to the bus roof however I would have paid up to ten times the official rate.) The point was I didn't know if the Zanskar trip would materialise so there was no reason to cart in a heavy menu. I only wanted one pony whereas everyone else needed at least two. To get to Padam the capital of Zanskar from Darcha involved an outlay of Rs 2000 just for the ponies and not surprisingly all the candidates for admission to the forgotten kingdom were foreigners. Eventually I got fixed up with a single horse but had to tag along with a young French couple since it (the horse not the couple) wouldn't leave its mother. To confuse my plans further which had been to zoom tentless over the Shingo la and beat the monsoon with a burst of speed downhill to the first Zanskar village of Kargyak (known to visitors who have tried the same trick as 'Cardiac') the French couple proposed to go by the longer Baralacha and Phirtse la route. One was simply not equipped for these passes with their extended approaches but succumbed to the temptation of crossing two for the price of one. This major decision called for further provisioning and I splurged on a kilo of potatoes and two '5-Star' bars.1
- The Indian answer to the well-known 'Mars bars'.-Ed.
The first three days followed the Manali-Leh military highway over the Baralacha to Keylang Sarai. After a very severe winter there wasn't much grass for the horses though once across the main range we found the gaddi shepherds and their flocks from Kangra out in full force. The pass had been cleared of snow the day before our arrival and the lead horse straying too near the ridge fell through a cornice to land with a broken neck on the road some 4 m below the shortcut through the snow. It is customary to offer compensation to the horsemen in these tragedies but we found a better solution. We would provide a scholarship to Gyachan's (the lead horsemen's) brother who while helping with our modest caravan wanted to study Tibetan to become a Lama As good fortune would have it the Dalai Lama was due in Zanskar to perform a special Buddhist ritual and everyone was keyed up for the occasion. Gyachan and his brother were from Kargyak while the third horseman Tomay was from Testa further down the Zanskar (Lunak) valley. Tomay was strong and willing (and indeed stood in as the missing horse) but nature had not overburdened him with the effulgent understanding all the Mani walls promised in their mystic mantras. The fourth day saw us turn northwest and follow a splendid open valley along the eroded banks of the Lingti Chu. The day had started with a messy river crossing and after drying out we came to another grey barrier, cold, slick and altogether unappetising to bootless tenderfoots. The gods were with us for a French party of ornithologists had already strung out a 30 m rope and offered to winch us over. It seemed to come up only to their waists but when I crossed just my neck was above water. On recovering from the trembles one noted the bird specialists were all over six feet. By a strange irony just before we met them we had the thrill of almost treading on the scrape of a bird's nest on the ground. A fluffy fledgliag with heart beating as loudly as ours had a downy ruff of yellow and the French experts immediately identified it as the horned lark.
The fifth day should have taken us to the Sariehen la but we only got as far as Chumik Marpho (4600 m), the junction for both the Phirtse and Sariehen passes. Tomay had given us misleading instructions and we spent half the day thrashing tbout scree slopes looking for hoofprints. An ominous sign at tte eventual camp site were the stacked saddle bags of barley (w.th flocks of thieving snow pigeons wheeling around) which had been left by shepherds from Rupshu who had found both passes into Zanskar still closed by the severe winter snow. The next iay we filed upto the Sariehen revelling in the photogenic effects of the ponies flailing a way through the snowfields, overlooking the obvious fact that if it was so deep at the bottom what mist it not be like at the sharp end? At last bogged down we Iwd to ferry the loads by hand, a duty I was exempted from as the 'buddha' (old man) of the party. A recce to the top showed a wide-angle vista of Zanskar viewed from a kilometre long cornice that overhung the proceedings. It was decided the horses would be led round by a long detour to get down to the valley from the NE rim. where the snow was shallower. The passengers were led by Andre whose Geneva address fortunately didn't turn out to be ornamental. We glissaded down the face of the pass and within fifty feet of starting the descent the budding Lama disappeared into a crevasse up to his neck. His monastic crew-cut did not help in the rescue operations. Thereafter, we descended at such a clip that the fissures couldn't keep up with us.
We had sailed off the top at 3 p.m. in overcast conditions and were advised to carry only essentials for the night at Kargyak, a two-day trek away which we had to reach before 8 p.m. (The horsemen would return for the loads tomorrow with a yak). Within no time the horses had caught up with us and we continued our punishing jogging descent. Martine the French girl had read Michel Peissel's romantic account of Zanskar but hadn't reckoned on being roped in to a basic course for Black Cat commandos. Quite literally, for the lower one got the more furious the river became and hauling oneself over the millrace on a rope was beginning to seem like a part of life. Now the horses were unloaded one could also charge bareback across the torrent but this was an even more terrifying alternative since there was nothing to hold on to, unless you clung to the neck of the pony, which was the first part to go under the icy flood.
The last steep section into the canyon opened up at 6 p.m. and the horses were left to graze. The magnificent cliffs surrounding Kargyak came alive before' our eyes when almost a dozen ibex waltzed up the face. The last race to Gyachan's house in the dark was through the pounding gorge where late in the day the water was at its most venomous and scoured the catwalks we tried to negotiate. Soa'sed and desperate we stumbled out to the rare sight of flat land and the contours of a standing crop. Then bumping our heads we tumelled around the warrens that constitute living quarters in thes? survivor villages and emerged into a classical scene of the Traishimalaya where the seated patriarch ladles out butter tea in the nidst of an encircling family* Despite the grotty surroundings we were home and the warmth of that welcome made all the Rambo river-running worth it.
Unlike the bulk of French athletes who bulldoze their way from Darcha to Lamayuru xnder canvas we had the privilege of staying in village houses all the way down the valley after Kargyak. When we made the detour at Puma to Phugtal to see the famous cliff-hanging monastery, here too we were able to spend the night (in a monk's cell) thanks to Gyachan's brother who had resided there for 14 years. The two hour approach along the Tsarap gorge was suitably climaxed by a magnificent architectural handshake between man and nature. Naturally as Hon. librarian of the Himalayan Club one wanted to see the stone on which the Hungarian scholar., Alexander Csomo de Koros, had carved his name in 1826. After several years studying in Zanskar and Himachal gompas he became the librarian of the Asiatic Society in Calcutta, where he produced the first dictionary of the Tibetan language in English.
The way of Padam became progressively easier when 'sweet tea' began to appear in the primitive hotels but the price of such progress was the distressing tourist symptom of village children begging for 'bon-bon'. Peissel's cultural colonisation of Zanskar is so comprehensive that I found myself saying 'Bon Jour' more often than 'Jule'. We had the bonus of seeing all the villagers in their best clothes making the pilgrimage to the capital to have a darshan of their living Buddha the Dalai Lama. Padam itself we reached on the thirteenth day out of Darcha, a tiny, expensive and pleasantly scruffy village set in welcome open surroundings after all the enclosed gorge country we had threaded our way through. Barley fields edged with wild geraniums set off the ragged peaks which gave rise to the muddiest drinking water imaginable. The camp of the Dalai Lama resembled something out of the Golden Horde but one was put off by the current fashion of lamas doing the rounds with receipt books for spiritual donations. After the lean and hungry inhabitants of the interior it was bit much to have to stomach these well-padded outsiders raffling electronic gadgets to an amazed peasantry. After a five day convalescence, caused by the shock of finding I had lost three inches round rny stomach, one caught the occasional, hair-raising bus to Kargil where the really hard part of the trip began. A day was wasted trying to cross the Zoji la. (Next day I crossed it on foot and beat the down traffic by more than six hours). Dinner in Srinagar with Sayeed and Janet Rizvi (another Himalayan Club Hon. librarian) prepared me for the marathon bus ride back to Delhi, and thence posthaste to Mussoorie to plant the wild rose I had dug out by the roots and carried all the way from Phugtal. Happily in the heavy monsoon it has taken and my overriding memory of the Zanskar voyage will be the wild rivers and wild roses. Though if one were to be Krossly truthful, who can forget those musical campsites sleeping to the accompaniment of farting ponymen and their no less accomplished ponies?